Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
The less informed about Searching for Sugar Man before seeing it, the better. All one need know about Malik Bendjelloul’s wonderful documentary is that it concerns musical discovery. Honestly, if you love good music, interesting characters, and high-quality filmmaking, head to the Fine Arts Theatre before it’s gone. Stop reading now, blindly enter the film’s central mystery, and you’ll be thankful. For those who require a little more coaxing, however, read on, but consider yourself warned.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, a musician named Rodriguez played clubs around Detroit and charmed audiences with his insightful songwriting and catchy melodies. His sound was Dylanesque with a little Van Morrison on the side, yet wholly his own and earned him a recording contract with Sussex Records. The deal yielded two albums in as many years, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, both of which are still hailed as works of genius by their producers and label execs.
Through interviews with those intimately involved in the recording sessions, Rodriguez’s music receives plenty of hype, but the actual songs live up to and arguably exceed that praise. Bendjelloul, aiming for maximum impact, augments their power with a range of crisp camerawork, most of which focuses on the grittiness of Detroit. Whether employing archival street shots of the city in its prime or flying high and low through its modern-day war zone equivalent, the music reverberates as a clear soundtrack of the Motor City. A brief animated sequence, imagining a young Rodriguez walking these streets, fits in effortlessly, collectively forming the finest extended music video an artist could conceive.
Rodriguez himself, however, remains a man of mystery even to those who reminisce over his talent. Bendjelloul does well to present the story as an investigation, and as new information is garnered, Rodriguez’s story becomes one of modern music’s most amazing tales. Dropped from Sussex after poor sales, Rodriguez disappeared from the music scene, only to gain a massive following in South Africa. Tied to his fame abroad was word that he had committed suicide on stage. Exact details on how he died, however, remain unknown, but when a record store owner and journalist team up to investigate, they discover something else entirely.
Searching for Sugar Man is a pure labor of love for Bendjelloul, who wrote, directed, and edited the film, plus composed additional music. His enthusiasm for all things Rodriguez permeates each frame, though at times his probing questions feel intrusive. For several interviewees, the pain of Rodriguez’s commercial failure still lingers, and instead of harping on the “what if”s of lost celebrity, they would prefer to leave the past undisturbed. The queries are certainly ones that any good investigator should ask, but their piercing delivery and the manner in which the subjects bristle suggests a lack of tact and a disconnect with Rodriguez’s peaceful mystique.
Such moments are mere brief distractions, though, as Bendjelloul’s immense filmmaking gifts overshadow these minor bumps. Like last year’s superb Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, Searching for Sugar Man is an engrossing journey, full of wonder and surprises. For introducing Rodriguez’s music to a new audience, it deserves high praise. For being a great film to boot, it deserves even more.
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some drug references.
Searching for Sugar Man is currently playing at the Fine Arts Theatre on Biltmore Ave.
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